Last year, after much research, consultation, and deliberation, I purchased a custom built road touring bike. I recently completed my first 1,000 miles on this creation and have decided to mark the occasion with a review of the bike, the build choices, and the resulting performance.
This was spurred by two factors: First, being an unconventional build, I’ve often fielded questions about the choices made and their effects. Second, much of my research prior to starting this build was based on others’ first hand reports of similar projects. I am grateful for the wealth of knowledge shared and want to contribute back to the cycling community.
My goal in the project was to create an efficient and comfortable road machine that could keep up with group rides and impromptu races while still being able to accommodate racks and bags for a week-long pavement tour. This was inspired in no small part by my first year participating in the National EMS Memorial Bike Ride, completing seven states in seven days on a mountain bike converted to tourer by means of trekking bars and smooth tires. While I successfully completed that ride, it showed me the benefits of a proper bike for long-distance road.
I had also become less interested in mountain biking (a recreational staple while in college) and had developed a growing fondness for higher speeds and longer miles. After several attempts to make my mountain bike more road friendly, I decided a dedicated drop-bar frameset was the way to go.
This bike is built on a Surly Straggler frameset. The Straggler is steel framed, disc specific, cyclocross bike made by Surly Bikes. Surly isn’t as large or well known as manufacturers like Trek or Specialized and doesn’t have the marketing drive or sponsorships of more established companies, but they do offer a host of quality and versatile bikes and frames with an emphasis on utility, durability, and function. While I don’t have anything against Trek or Specialized (I’ve used both in the past), I was looking for something different this time.
I worked extensively with Jeff and Kim at East Coasters Bike Shop in Roanoke, Virginia. We discussed several options based on my desires, intended usage, and service history (I am a large and strong rider who has found the breaking point of many lesser components). After reviewing the offerings from several manufactures, we decided a custom build would yield the best result while offering a solid return on investment.
The result is a 62cm gloss-black Swiss Army Knife of a road bike. The frame is light enough to sprint off the line and charge up hills while still being strong enough not to complain about the forces being applied in the process. Where cheaper road bikes make me feel as though I’m going twist the frame while standing and charging on the hoods, the steel tubes provide a confidence-inspiring stiffness while still absorbing some of the bumps and vibrations of cracked and potholed roads. The bike will accommodate a variety of racks and fenders while the rear dropouts can take either a geared or a single-speed drivetrain.
Contact points include a wider-than-most 46cm version of the Salsa Cowbell handlebar which offers a moderate drop and slight flare at the ends for more neutral hand positioning. A Bontrager Nebula saddle was transferred from another bike while Shimano M530 SPD mountain bike pedals ensure that I don’t need to change cleats every time I change bikes.
Stopping power is provided by Avid BB7 mechanical discs driven by Tektro brake levers. While the Tektros aren’t the highest end equipment, they have an excellent feel and good reach in all positions, something I didn’t find with some other manufactures. I specifically stayed away from integrated shifters instead opting for 105 bar end controls. A lot of people prefer bar end shifters for touring due to reliability and simplicity. While this is a valid point in my mind, for me it simply came down to personal preference. I grew up with Rapidfire and Grip Shift, but from the first time I used bar ends on a rented road bike, it immediately just felt right, as though that was the way bikes were supposed to shift all along. For some reason it is simply the most natural and intuitive interface for me, but to each his own.
Mated to those shifters is a precise patchwork of drivetrain components. Unable to find what I wanted from preassembled groupsets, we ended up selecting a Shimano 105 touring triple (30-39-50) with corresponding 105 front derailleur. For the rear, we choose a 10-speed mountain cassette (11-36) and long cage derailleur from the SLX line.
This brings up the value of a quality shop and a knowledgeable mechanic. Had I built this bike without assistance, I would have selected the 10-speed SLX derailleur to go with the 10-speed cassette and 10-speed shifter. I also would have only been able to use three or four gears on that cassette. As it turns out, the spacing is slightly different between Shimano’s road and mountain drivetrains. The mountain derailleur would have been incompatible with the road shifter. Fortunately, Jeff not only knew of this incompatibility, but that the 9-speed mountain derailleur had exactly the same cable-pull-to-travel ratio as the 10-speed road equivalent. Thus my 30-speed, half road, half mountain, mostly 10-speed, slightly 9-speed, Frankenstein of a drivetrain shifts perfectly throughout the entire range and gives me gearing options I couldn’t find with any off-the-shelf groupset.
The last components for which I had special requirements were the wheels. I’ve had poorly built wheels fail under fairly moderate usage so I wanted something that would last. The frame will also accommodate tires up to 44mm so I needed a rim that would support a range of widths. The shop found a set of Handspun 36-spoke wheels built with Shimano hubs laced to Velocity Dyad double-walled rims with solid, 14g DT Swiss spokes. As an added bonus, the rims have a gray appearance during the day but become highly reflective when lit by headlights at night. The wheels were fitted with 700×28 puncture resistant Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires.
Because no bike is complete without optional accessories, the electronics include a Light & Motion Urban 550 USB rechargeable headlight and a Planet Bike Blaze 2W taillight to keep me seen at night. A Garmin Edge 500 GPS computer provides navigation and tracking. A Revelate Designs half framebag allows room for all of the essentials and more while still leaving enough space for two oversized water bottles. For extra cargo capacity, an Axiom Journey rear rack and Ortlieb drybag provide room for a long day trip or a loaded commute to work. An extra set of Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour tires in 700×44 let the bike tap into its cyclocross roots on gravel and singletrack.
And yes, in case you were wondering, I did take this bike on the following year’s National EMS Memorial Bike Ride. We went from Boston to DC in 7 days. By the way, should you need evidence of the benefit of a proper bike fitting, due to my tall stature, I was unable to find a bike to test ride before purchase. What’s more, due to supply delays and a business trip I had to take just before the event, I would not ride the bike prior to the first day. Thanks, however, to a professional and thorough fitting before the purchase and the customization that resulted, everything fit and road perfectly.